Political Violence Could Derail Ethiopia’s Democratic Transition
A string of assassinations has spawned conspiracy theories and intercommunal suspicion, threatening the country’s stability.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—According to his wife, the late Gen. Seare Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s former army chief of staff, was assassinated by a bodyguard shortly after 9 p.m. on June 22, 2019. The general was rushed to a hospital, where he later died. His companion, a retired general who was also hit, died immediately. His wife was inside their home at the exact moment of the killing, but she was there at the scene when, a few minutes later, the bodyguard sprang from the ground and ran to a shed at the end of the garden, firing a volley of bullets at a security guard in pursuit.
If anybody knows what happened to the widely respected general that night, it is his widow, Tsige Alemayehu. But, for more than a year after the assassination, she was not asked to testify in the accused bodyguard’s trial. Nor were she and her family allowed to attend the hearing. Indeed, before June she had never met the prosecutor hired by the government in the case. Her efforts to speak with the attorney general, the federal police commissioner, and even Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, were all rebuffed. “We don’t know what is going on and nobody is telling us,” she said in an interview in July. “There must be something they want to hide.”
Tsige is not alone in her confusion and her suspicions. In the past two years, political killings and the conspiracy theories they spawn have become a recurrent theme in Ethiopian politics, with powerful and dangerous consequences for an already fragile nation. The proliferation of both reflects the violent nature of regime change and power struggles in an ethnically and ideologically divided country which has never experienced a peaceful political transition. They also reveal certain deep-rooted facts about the Ethiopian state itself.
In June 2018, shortly after Abiy took office and a year before the chief of staff’s killing, there was an apparent attempt on the prime minister’s life in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. A grenade was thrown toward the stage as the prime minister finished addressing a public rally, killing two and injuring many more. Two months later, Simegnew Bekele—the chief engineer of the country’s wildly popular infrastructure megaproject, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—was found dead in his car in the same square. (The police determined it was a suicide, but few are convinced.)
In June of this year, Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer and activist from the Oromo ethnic group, was shot in his car, triggering days of mayhem in which at least 166 people were killed (some by police, others by mobs) and more than 9,000 people were arrested.
Beyond the headlines, many low-level officials—including mayors, security chiefs, and opposition politicians—have been killed in the past two years. Four months before Hachalu’s murder, the police commissioner of the town of Burayu was murdered. The government blamed rebels linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party; the Oromo opposition blamed the government. A few months later, the head of the OLF office in the Bole district of Addis Ababa was killed in his car. A couple of weeks after Hachalu’s killing, a well-connected businessman allegedly with links to the government was killed in the town of Adama.
As for Seare’s assassination in Addis Ababa last year, it happened on the same night as what the government alleged was an attempted coup in the northern region of Amhara. The plot, which the government said was led by Amhara state’s then security chief, Asaminew Tsige, resulted in the murder of several top officials in Amhara including the regional president.
That night, Abiy alleged the two events were linked. In the following days, Asaminew was killed by the army while hundreds of his alleged accomplices and co-conspirators, including some opposition leaders, were arrested. Abiy later claimed that “the suspected people were trained by people who came from abroad.” But, in the subsequent months, almost all were released. In the former chief of staff’s case, only his bodyguard remains on trial—and the putative links between that incident and the assassinations in Amhara are no longer under consideration.
Seare’s widow believes the arrests and subsequent releases—with barely a word of explanation from the government—point to a cover-up. “Justice has not been served,” she said. Many Ethiopians at the time questioned the government’s version of events, and to this day many doubt its reasons (or lack thereof) for releasing suspects. When discussing their release Abiy did not specify whether they had been exonerated or pardoned. When asked for further details about the releases, Fikadu Tsega, the deputy attorney general, simply reiterated that the government had made a decision to do so.
In 2018, the historic transfer of power inside the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—from the ethnic Tigrayan old guard to Abiy’s supposedly reformist Oromo faction—was hailed as a democratic breakthrough, and Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later. Thousands of political prisoners were released; exiled opposition parties including the OLF were welcomed home; revisions to draconian laws were promised. The independence of state institutions, including the electoral board and judiciary, was also made a priority.
But today’s political opening increasingly resembles earlier periods of tumult in Ethiopian history. Abiy has himself noted parallels with the pattern of violence which followed the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and which involved both a rebel campaign of political assassinations known as the White Terror, and the state-orchestrated mass murders, known as the Red Terror, by the military junta known as the Derg. “We all know the history of the Red and White Terror,” he warned in an interview last year. “It started with the killing of government officials and the government during that time responded with unmatched force. There are people who want to repeat that. We have to be responsible not to repeat that history.”
It also resembles the mid-1990s, after the EPRDF overthrew the Derg in 1991 and then fell out with its allies in the transitional government, ushering in a period of bloody instability. In 1996, an Oromo singer and political activist called Ebbisaa Addunyaa was slain in his home in Addis Ababa in circumstances which echo those surrounding the death of Hachalu this year. Much of the Oromo opposition blamed the government for the murder. But some observers believe that intra-Oromo rivalries and even personal betrayal might have played a part, according to Endalk Chala, a professor at Hamline University who is researching a history of the OLF. Nobody was ever held accountable.
The conflicting interpretations of Hachalu’s murder today reflect similar divisions. Almost immediately after his death, members of the Oromo opposition accused the government. The government pointed to indications that Hachalu may have been killed by militant Oromo nationalists who had previously denounced the musician’s political moderation. But the chance that he was murdered for more mundane reasons—such as a romantic feud—cannot be entirely discounted.
The more fundamental problem for Ethiopia’s stability is that Abiy spoke out before any real investigation could take place. As he did in the hours after the so-called Amhara coup attempt the previous year, Abiy appeared on television (dressed again in army fatigues) and blamed the incident on “anti-reformists.” Four days later he appeared to blame Egypt, with whom Ethiopia is embroiled in a major dispute over the construction of the Nile dam: “Those external and internal forces who were not successful with the Great Ethiopia Renaissance Dam issue have tried their utmost efforts to create chaos at this time.” Meanwhile, Shimelis Abdisa, head of Oromia region, hinted heavily in a televised statement on June 30 at the involvement of Tigrayan politicians, alleging they organized the assassination in order to “regain the power which they had lost.”
Since then the police have arrested four suspects for the killing—who, according to the attorney general’s office, had taken orders from the Oromo Liberation Army (an armed breakaway faction of the OLF).
This pattern of inconsistent public statements and reckless politicization by both government and opposition leaders is now a familiar one. After the grenade attack in Meskel Square in 2018, the government swiftly blamed former Tigrayan security officials—including the former head of national intelligence. Police arrested 30 people suspected of involvement in the blast, as well as nine police officers for failing to prevent the attack, including the capital’s deputy police commissioner. More than two years later, on Aug. 28 this year, five non-Tigrayan individuals were convicted for the incident. All others have since been released or had their charges dropped.
Following the death of the dam’s chief engineer, some opposed to Abiy’s government accused it of murdering him. While on a visit to the United States Abiy himself called it an assassination, before the police said it was a suicide. Others suggested the assassins might be linked to the Tigrayan-dominated military-industrial conglomerate Metals and Engineering Corporation, which was responsible for much of the dam’s construction (and was widely believed to have embezzled funds). Nothing has ever been definitively proved.
A number of theories can be posited to explain these patterns. One is simply incompetence and government incapacity, including a lack of technical expertise for conducting complex investigations. Following the bomb in Addis Ababa, the U.S. government sent a team of experts from the FBI to help determine the cause of the blast, though it was not involved in the subsequent police investigation into the suspects.
Another problem is the overwhelming dominance of state-controlled or state-affiliated media, even in the relatively liberal press environment of the Abiy era. These outlets flood the airwaves with the official narrative following major incidents, enjoy privileged access to political court cases, and frequently broadcast highly partisan “documentaries” targeting political opponents. This feeds polarization by restricting the space for nonpartisan accounts and undermining faith in facts. And it is exacerbated by the government’s habit of shutting down the Internet in moments of crisis, which leaves the field open to extremist online voices which predominate among Ethiopia’s large and politically assertive overseas diaspora.
The flip side of this is an entrenched culture of opacity around the real workings of politics and government, which itself fosters the kind of climate of intrigue and mistrust which can lead to violence. “It becomes hard to say what is and isn’t conspiracy,” argued Diego Malara, an anthropologist at the University of Glasgow. “These aren’t totally wild political tales with witches and illuminati in them; they are plausible explanations in a context where intrigue and opacity are the norm.”
One consequence is that responding to assassinations and political killings has become, especially for the opposition, principally about seizing control of the narrative. This can come at the expense of seeking to establish the truth by pressing for independent and transparent investigations—and this matters in today’s Ethiopia, where independent investigations do not exist.
“During the old regime we had a lot of courts and a lot of wrangling even if we had no due process of law. Since the Revolution, we have neither courts nor wrangling nor due process of law,” wrote the Ethiopian writer-in-exile, Hama Tuma, in his 1993 satirical classic The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories. “In my country, going to court of one’s free will is considered a sign of mental imbalance.”
In the early days of the EPRDF government, there were signs of improvements in judicial independence. But these were more or less reversed in the years following the 2005 national election—the closest thing to a free contest in Ethiopian history, and in which a coalition of opposition parties claimed victory. In reaction, the government of then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi crushed what remained of the courts’ independence, flooding the benches with loyalists and restricting employment opportunities for dissidents. “They aggressively went after those who resisted party dictates,” said Mekonnen Firew Ayano, a law professor at the University of Missouri.
The attorney general’s office is headed by a political appointee and member of the ruling party. It is responsible not only for giving legal advice to the government but also for prosecuting crimes, which means there is no institutional safeguard against politically motivated prosecutions. “The entire bureaucracy—the entire law enforcement process—has historically been, and is still perceived to be, politicized,” said Adem K. Abebe, a legal expert based in The Hague. This continues under the new administration, despite its pledge to do things differently.
Even under Abiy, there is still an almost total merger of party and state. It is a phenomenon which dates back as far as Ethiopia has had parties (under the Derg there was only one party, and before the 1974 revolution the emperor himself was, in effect, the state). And its consequences are huge, profoundly shaping the culture of power and influencing the everyday relationship between citizens and their rulers. For those outside the state and the party, it encourages what Adem calls self-help: “If people think the state won’t do anything, they take matters into their own hands”—which can mean political violence. For those inside the state and the party, it encourages both corruption and a sense of impunity. All feed the culture which makes assassinations more likely.
In late 2019, Abiy ditched the EPRDF and formed a new party, the Prosperity Party, which promised to separate itself, for the first time, from the state. He has also appointed several respected individuals not aligned with the party to head various institutions. On Aug. 19, he made a highly regarded constitutional scholar, Gedion Timothewos Hessebon, the attorney general—but Gedion is not necessarily independent; he is said by well-connected political observers to have become a member of the PP.
But as Ethiopia’s long history of political violence and politicized justice clearly shows, it will take more than changes in personnel to fix problems of this kind. “If they want to regain trust in the institutions they will have to be really creative,” said Abel Abate Demissie, an Ethiopian political analyst and associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
At a minimum this must involve depoliticizing the attorney general’s office and redefining its functions. There should also be an entirely independent commission of inquiry headed by figures from outside politics to conduct investigations into all the major assassinations of recent years. And the government ought to take a longer view, too, and establish—following broad-based public consultations—a wide-reaching truth-and-reconciliation process to tackle the legacies of historic violence and injustice. Otherwise, Ethiopia will not break the painful and destructive cycle which increasingly threatens to drive it over a cliff.
Tom Gardner is a journalist based in Addis Ababa, covering Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.